More than 237 years after the American Declaration of Independence, Great Britain is moving closer to a fully representative democracy. But considering that the British resolved to start working on the process over a hundred years ago, it might still take awhile. Since 1911, the British have made repeated stabs at reforming the House of Lords, which historically included only hereditary peers (plus high Church of England officials). In recent years, pressure has been building to just do it. Many would like to replace the ancient House of Lords with a fully-elected body, which would be similar to our Senate. Slowly but surely, change is coming.
In 1066, William of Normandy crossed the English Channel and conquered England. He codified a feudal system in which a council of large landowners and church officials advised him. Titles were formalized, as in my previous post, More Peering at the Peerage. Having a title was a mixed blessing. At any time, the holder of the title could be summoned to the monarch’s court, at his own expense. He could be ordered to pay crippling taxes, or to raise an army. In compensation, he got to sit in council with the king, theoretically having some influence on decisions. (If I’d been sitting across the table from King Henry VIII, I’d have kept my head down). Eventually, the king’s council became the House of Lords, filled by nobles with hereditary titles and the lands that went with them.
In 1215, under King John, the Magna Carta, or Great Charter of the Liberties of England, was written. Among other things, it stated that never again could the king tax without the consent of the governed–i.e., the nobles. (At this point, no one thought to worry much about commoners). Five hundred years later, the American colonists demanded the same rights for themselves. The Boston Tea Party was an audacious challenge to the English king’s practice of taxation without representation.
Sometime in the 14th century, due to popular pressure, a House of Commons evolved in Britain so that commoners could have a say in government. The present 650 members are elected. They are called MPs, or Members of Parliament. They actually do the business of government.
Since Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy, the monarch still has a formal role in government. The theory is that she (or he) provides continuity and stability. The same theory applies to the House of Lords, but its days could be numbered. To this day, though, the Queen presides over the opening of every new session of Parliament.
I’ve often watched Question TIme in the House of Commons. Amid catcalls from one side and cries of “Hear, hear,” from the other, the British Prime Minister leaps up from his seat to answer the most provocative of questions. It’s a pretty good show. As far as I know, there is no such opportunity to watch the House of Lords at work. There are still 93 hereditary peers eligible to sit in the House of Lords. The remaining positions are filled by a complicated and ever-changing system of election and appointment which I can’t for the life of me understand. In fact, I can’t even figure out how many people are entitled to wear the heavy red velvet robes of the House of Lords.
Should the British eliminate the peerage? One reason it has not yet happened is that the British people love their traditions. Cynics argue that the hereditary peerage (and the monarchy) provide nifty spectacles for tourists. I can’t argue with that.
Anyway, as an American, I don’t think I’m entitled to an opinion on either the peerage or the monarchy. After all, in our “classless” society, we pay outrageous salaries to athletes while teachers have trouble feeding their families. And we pay homage to “celebrities”–including reality stars of dubious talents–in all our media. Meanwhile, I’m as fond of British traditions, including titles, as any other Anglophile. England would be a different country with no one to call “Lord” or “Lady.”
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles.